Cartography, or map making, is a practice that has been around for centuries. The oldest map known to man could date back as far as the late 7th millennium BCE, and the oldest surviving maps are generally thought to be the Babylonian world maps created in the 9th century BCE. The history of cartography is closely tied to our own human history, since we have been making maps for as long as we have been navigating the world around us.
Traditional Cartography vs. Modern Cartography
The history of cartography is a fascinating subject because there have been so many massive developments over the centuries. The technique has changed dramatically as technological advancements have been made, but the cartography definition has stayed the same-whether drawn by hand or created with a machine, the practice of making maps is still very important to mankind. Maps were originally drawn by hand using basic instruments like ink, brushes, and parchment, and became much more accurate upon the invention of the compass.
The printing press brought maps to a much wider audience through mass production, and the telescope allowed map makers to improve their accuracy even more by studying the position of the sun and the North Star. The 20th century brought about a huge change in cartography-as computers have advanced, so have modern maps. Maps are now created digitally using specialized software that has access to a large database of spatial and geographical information. They have evolved from pieces of paper to interactive, dynamic applications.
General & Thematic
The two most basic types of maps are general and thematic. General maps have been created for a wider audience and usually come as part of a series, whereas thematic maps are made with a specific audience in mind. Physical maps that show the overall landscape of an area (such as rivers, mountains, and lakes) are great examples of a general map in cartography. Definition between geological features is not usually important with thematic maps, which focus on a particular topic relevant to a specific location. Maps with political, economic, sociological, or agricultural data are popular types of thematic maps.
Topographic & Topological
Two other important types of map are topographic and topological. Topographic maps show the elevation and terrain of a region. Terrain is usually displayed in relief, which demonstrates dimension.
Topological maps are much more general and simplified: these maps lack vital information and specific details, but include major features. The point of a topographical map is to provide a basic overview of a region or distance between two points.
Components of Map Design
One of the most vital features of a map is the informational elements intended for the audience. This includes the title, legend, scale, and source information. The legend is a key of all the symbols used on the map, what they represent, and typically includes the neatline, compass rose (at the very least a North facing arrow), and any markups specific to the map. For example, a trail map may feature symbols related to different trails and their skill/experience level, whereas an urban map may features symbols related to the different structures present (i.e. houses, buildings, etc.)
Depending on the map, this information may be color-coded. A bar scale is an important feature because it tells the reader how distance is measured. Usually this is represented one of three ways: verbally, through a representative fraction, or by a graphic. A symbol or scale illustrating a distance ratio, such as “one inch equals one mile” is an example of a representation, while a typical map graphic is usually a simple bar scale. A representative fraction (such as 1:63,500) indicates that one inch on the map is equal to 63,500 inches, or one mile, in person. Almost all maps will have varying degrees of these components, depending on the map type and audience.
Message and Audience
Just as its important to carefully design a map to visually appeal to the audience, it is equally important for the map to convey a clear message. General maps tend to convey geographical information for everyone, while thematic maps require more thought and consideration. During the process of map making, the cartographer needs to keep in mind who will read the map, where it will be published (such as an atlas, book, or journal), and how the map will be used. This information should influence the creation of the map so that it caters to the intended audience as much as possible.
One of the most famous map makers in history was Eratosthenes, who lived between 276 and 194 BCE. He was the first man to calculate the size of the earth by using a method known as “stades,” which was named after the length of a stadium. He created latitude and longitude, and invented the term “geography.” Eratosthenes created one of the earliest maps of the world around 220 BC, although only fragments of the map remain in existence today.
Gerardus Mercator is another famous cartographer who is known for his “Mercator Map,” which was the first map that was intended to make a flat drawing of the earth look spherical. By altering the size of the drawings near the North and South poles and keeping the latitude and longitude lines straight, he created what is known as the “Mercator projection,” which is used as a tool for navigation at sea.
- The Evolution of Thematic Cartography
- Map Design (PDF)
- Cartography and the Internet: Implications for Modern Cartography
- Famous Cartographers
- A Social History of the Mercator Projection